Gateway to the Classics: Stories of the Magicians by Alfred J. Church
Stories of the Magicians by  Alfred J. Church

The Death of Rustem

Zal of the white hair had born to him in his old age a son of singular beauty. But when the astrologers came to cast his horoscope, they were perplexed and terrified at what they found. They said to Zal, "We have learnt the secret of the heavens; but it is of evil import for you and yours. This beautiful son will be the ruin of your house; he will confound the land of Persia; few and bitter will be his own days, and there will be few of his kindred that will survive him."

Zal gave the lad the name of Sheghad, and sent him, when he was grown up, to the King of Cabul. When the King saw that he was tall and handsome, and fit in all respects to sit upon a throne, he showed him great kindness, provided for him bountifully, and finally gave him his daughter in marriage.

Rustem was accustomed to receive every year from the King of Cabul a bull's hide, as a token of sovereignty; and the King hoped that, now that Sheghad was become his son-in-law, this tribute would he remitted. But when the proper time came, Rustem sent his messenger as usual, and demanded the bull's hide.


The Chase

The King, and still more Sheghad, were greatly offended at this conduct.

"Why should I respect my elder brother," said he, "when he is not ashamed to behave to me so unkindly? I care for him no more than if he were a stranger."

One night the King and his son-in-law could not sleep for thinking of this affair, but sat talking of how they might rid the world of Rustem. At last Sheghad said to the King:

"Listen to my scheme. Make a great feast, and invite all the nobles to it; while we are drinking wine, say something insulting to me. I will leave the table, as if in anger, and, going to Zabulistan, will complain to my father and my brother of the King of Cabul. Then Rustem will come to redress my wrongs. You must find a hunting-ground, and cause a number of pits to be dug in it; they must be dug large enough for Rustem and Raksh, his horse. The bottom of the pits must be filled with swords and lances and hunting spears, with their handles in the earth and their points upwards. Let a great number of them be dug, a hundred rather than five; and take care that you say nothing of the matter—no, not even to the sun."

So the King made a feast, and invited to it all the nobles of the land. When their heads were full of the fumes of wine, Sheghad began to boast of his parentage.

"There is no one equal to me in this company," he cried. "Zal is my father, and Rustem my brother."

The King said: "You are no brother of Rustem. You are the son of a slave!"

Then Sheghad started up in a rage, and left the banqueting hall, and set out for Zabulistan. When he came to the palace, his brother asked him: "How do you fare in Cabul?"

Sheghad said: "Do not speak to me of Cabul. The King has insulted me beyond bearing; yes, and you too. 'You are no son of Zal,' he said, 'and, though you were, it would be nothing to your honour.' Then I came away in a rage."

Rustem said: "My brother, do not trouble yourself about this fellow. I will humble him in the dust, and give his crown to you."

Then Rustem commanded his lieutenants to assemble an army; but Sheghad said: "Do not trouble yourself to lead an army against Cabul. The mere sound of your name will be enough. Already, I am sure, the King repents of his folly, and he will send his chiefs to entreat your pardon."

"You are right," said Rustem, "I have no need to take an army against Cabul. A hundred horsemen will be sufficient."

Meanwhile the King of Cabul had caused the pits to be made according to Sheghad's advice. They were so skilfully hidden, that neither man nor horse could possibly discover them.

As soon as Rustem had set out, Sheghad sent a message to the King. "Rustem has set out without an army. Come and make a pretence of entreating his pardon."

So the King came to meet Rustem his tongue covered with honey, his heart full of poison. And as soon as he spied him in the distance, he dismounted, uncovered his head, drew his shoes from his feet, and, throwing himself on the ground, begged pardon for the injurious words that he had used to Sheghad. So Rustem pardoned him, and accompanied him on his return to his capital.

Near the city the King had had a feast prepared in a beautiful garden; and, as they sat at the wine, he said: "If you have any wish to hunt, I have a park where the plains and hills abound with wild beasts. There are lions among the hills, and in the plain roe-deer and wild asses."

Rustem heard this with delight, for his fate had come upon him. He bade Raksh be saddled, took his falcons, and put his bow in its case, and set out. As they were following the chase, all his companions left him, and he—for so fate would have it—approached the place where the pits had been dug. Raksh, how ever, smelt the newly-turned earth, and reared, and would not advance. But Rustem was determined to go on, and blinded by his fate, lifted his whip in a rage, and touched Raksh, though but lightly, with it. The horse bounded at the stroke, and fell with two of his feet in one of the pits. His sides were terribly wounded, and Rustem's breast and legs were also pierced. Nevertheless, such was his strength, he disentangled himself from the trap, and recovered his footing on the side of the pit.

When he opened his eyes he saw Sheghad, and knew from his face that he had contrived this treachery. "You will repent of this," he cried.

But Sheghad said: "You have deserved your end for all the blood that you have shed."

At this moment the King arrived, and when he saw how seriously Rustem was wounded, he pretended to be grieved, and said: "How has this misfortune happened? I will go at once and fetch physicians to heal your wounds."


The Death of Rustem

"The time is past," answered Rustem, "when physicians can help me. I am passing away, as better men before me have passed. But be sure that my son will avenge my death."

Then he turned to Sheghad and said: "Grant me this one favour. Give me my bow and two arrows. I would not be torn in pieces by a lion, as I lie helpless here."

Sheghad drew the bow from its case, and put it into Rustem's hand, smiling, as he did so, with joy that his brother was dying. Rustem griped it with a mighty grasp, weakened though he was with the pain of his wounds. When Sheghad saw how strong he was, he was struck with terror, and tried to hide himself. There was a plane-tree close at hand, and behind this he sheltered himself. But Rustem laid an arrow in rest, and drew his bow with such strength that the arrow passed right through both the tree and Sheghad. The hero rejoiced and said: "Thanks be to God that I have been able to revenge myself on this traitor." And as he spoke his spirit left him.

This was the end of Rustem.

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